Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Cool pool, Harry, but where’s the front door?
One thing about the Seidler machine, it knows its way to a good opening. Last week’s excruciatingly elegant launch of the new vanity “biography” of Seidler’s Grosvenor Place drew the glitter set quite as though the Great Man were still alive and raising hell – and not only for the sweet way the bubbles rose up their hollow French stems. Ditto the opening, some weeks earlier, of Seidler’s glamorous new Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre in Ultimo.
There aren’t many public pools that function just as swimmingly for a Bach-and-blinis black frock bash as for a few dozen morning laps. Then again, there aren’t many swimming legends happily snapped in Armani and pearls, either. So maybe it’s fitting that Harry Seidler’s last, posthumous work, is such a pool. But what makes an opening really special is when the black-frockettes can’t find the opening to the opening. And that’s where modernism comes, as it were, in.
Unlike most Seidlers (including Australia Square and Grosvenor), the Ian Thorpe fronts the street bold and square. So as you approach, black-frocked to the hilt, you might expect the front door to be, well, frontal. You might march up the royal-blue ramp with its head-high logo, or bowl confidently towards the great streetside sliding glass panels, or approach the understated black-framed door.
You might plausibly do any of those. But what you probably wouldn’t do is spot the real front door, tucked away behind a half-pregnant curve like a navel beneath an overhanging muffin-top. Even the large-lettered up-front ENTRANCE sign mightn’t do it, being silver on lavatorial white.
It’s a pretty enough sign, but it flouts a basic architectural principle. Love never did mean not having to say sorry, but architecture should always mean not having to label the entrance.
It wasn’t just Seidler. Modernism generally regarded frontness, in doors or anything else, as a habit of unconscionable antiquity, like ox-carts, or snuff. What use is a front, after all, if you’re dispensing with streets? Especially if a front door involved putting a straight-sided hole in a round-sided object.
At the Opera House, this problem produced a door so tactful the trusting concertgoer, ascending the Great Stair, can easily be swept right through and out the venturi gap having achieved no penetration whatsoever.
At Australia Square the solution involved making lots of front doors, all the same, all the way round. In the Rose Seidler house it involved entry from the garage below, whence you emerge like a meerkat into the bright-white space. (Same at Canberra’s National Gallery, and the ubiquitous mall.)
At the Ian Thorpe, by contrast, the street-front pseudo-doors are more like the eyes on the caterpillar’s bottom; strictly decoys. So, why dump the door? History’s most romantic use of doorlessness is in those heroically remote and austere Greek mountain monasteries where visitors are hauled up in a basket. There, though, doorlessness is purposeful, maintaining the hermetic seal. The modern skyscraper, mall or pool, by contrast, does rather need public access. And yet the openings hide, shrinking from the gaze like pansies.
Not like the Ian Thorpe Centre change room experience. These delicate, sinuous spaces are so narrow (mainly to avoid plugging the entrance entirely) that, male or female, you can barely bend to dress without getting your face in someone’s backside or – worse – vice versa.
But if that suggests a triumph of form over function, think again. Seidler was never really a form-follows-function man anyway. He was more a zeitgeist kinda guy, moulding form to the spirit of the epoch. Which is why he’s known, despite his protestations to the contrary, as a bit of a formalist.
It was form – especially that great undulating wave of a roof – that won Seidler the commission in 2002. And it’s form that establishes an unlikely confluence between personal design meme and local motif. Seidler had already moved, over decades, from straight lines to curved-in-plan to curved-in-section; most famously, the cliff-top Berman House at Joadja in the Southern Highlands. But if you didn’t know that, and you’d never heard Seidler rail against the “slums” of Ultimo, you’d be forgiven for suspecting him here of contextualism. You might think, briefly, he was playing a team game, emulating such other waterfront roof waves as the Maritime Museum, Star City Casino, Darling Park, ABC building, the aquarium and – they all love to claim this lineage – the Opera House herself.
But this pool’s greatest strength is not its form – which is, frankly, a little vulgar and generates more problems than it solves. Problems like its awkward meeting with other shapes, a certain structural clunkiness, and the hyper-discreet entrance. It also makes for a Big Gesture that is less windswept heroic, more beached-whale voluptuous.
But the great curve does have virtues, principally – and here’s the surprise – its experiential qualities. Its being-there. The way it dampens sound, bounces light and invites views, rendering the visuals serene, the sound-space velvety and the swimming experience a perennial, luminous delight. Change rooms and entrances aside, this is the most delicious indoor swimming experience in town, by far.
ADDENDUM:Harry Seidler’s design won the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre commission in 2001, not 2002. Source: Readerlink 21-11-2007